Frances McDormand in Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland
Nomadland on Disney+ is hard to talk about without disturbing its profundities. Since seeing the film last fall, and many times since, I’ve not looked forward to writing a review. It is a shame to reduce this incredible artistic achievement to a paragraph. There’s no way I can do it justice.
It defies distillation because it is a VAST film on every level. The gorgeous intensity of the work
of director and co-writer Chloe Zhao and the shimmering humanity of Frances McDormand’s nomad Fern are complete. and the natural world Fern inhabits seems an extension of her mind. But here goes. McDormand is a 60-something “houseless” wanderer in the American west, who relishes her days in nature, the deserts, keeping her own counsel, choosing not to be a part of society. McDormand lives in “Vanguard” the vehicle that she’s proudly personalized, working seasonally at an Amazon centre, willingly adrift from family and very much her own person.
She doesn’t mind campfires with fellow nomads (real nomads playing themselves) and when
a man (David Strathairn) falls for her, she momentarily loses her equilibrium. Nomadland is indescribably enveloping, you feel you are with her, enduring her moods, feeling her isolation
and necessary self-sufficiency and enjoying her laughter, as rare as it is. Her stillness and face show every nuance of her thoughts and feelings, moments big but mostly small are so familiar to us, that it’s hard to look away. Perfection, joy, poetry, nature, human nature. An awards and memory behemoth.
The Good Traitor tells the true story of international politics during World War II that played out in the Danish Embassy in Washington, DC with important implications that helped defeat the Nazis. Danish Ambassador Henrik Kauffmann (Ulrich Thomsen) was stationed in DC when his homeland fell under threat from Hitler, Denmark was dangerously neutral during the war and the price was about to be paid. The King and governors agreed to allow the Nazis in as friendly observers, but it wasn’t long until Germany took control and demanded unconditional surrender. The Danes had no choice but to give in. But Kauffman felt he had, safe in DC. He defied orders to return home and waged a war against the Nazis from a world away. It was a bold move. The US refused to oppose Hitler in the war or help Denmark despite Kauffman’s pleas. “Americans don’t fight for countries they left behind”. He decides to disobey Germany’s orders to stand down, operate as a free Dane and “resist barbarism”. How he got the free world involved in the fight is a remarkable story, that played out as Wynne’s marriage suffers due to his wife’s sister’s attentions. You can’t make this stuff up. TVOD.
Netflix‘ superhero comedy adventure Thunder Force finds Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer as estranged high school besties Lydia and Emily, reunited in adulthood to fight crime and corruption in the city of Chicago. Lydia’s not done so swell but “nerd” Emily owns a tech giant Stanton 4.0, to develop ways and means of fighting the Miscreants, evil superpowered thugs attached to The King (John Cannavale) who is running for Mayor and operating a criminal organisation. He’s responsible for much damage and death in his campaign but loses to a woman who looks a lot like AOC. He channels his rage into further disruption but little does he know that Lydia and Emily, now Thunder Force, superheroes thanks to a mistake at Stanton’s. And they’re coming after him and his band of hoodlums. McCarthy and Spencer are unexpectedly fun together and the film’s lighter than meringues that have just been exploded;
an OK timewaster to showcase McCarthy’s commitment to her character and Spencer’s ability to rise above and enjoy herself. Jason Bateman handles his role as half man half lobster with aplomb. You could do worse.
Palm Springs’ heroine Cristin Milioti is back in the desert, this time in Texas, in Made for Love a ten-parter on Amazon Prime. Time is a fluid thing so the tale of a woman held hostage by her tech mogul partner (Billy Magnussen) is pieced together fragment by fragment, a lazy way of storytelling. A good story, well written and played, can stand without tricks. Anyhoo, Hazel Green and Byron Gogol live in a technologically created forested paradise in the middle of the desert “see the clouds? they don’t move”. Their fake pet Dolphin swims in their pool but nothing much is real. Hazel is Byron’s living advertisement for his AI business and her life is stifled and unreal. She escapes via a sewer into the middle of the desert, only to find Byron’s implanted a thought reading/GPS/camera chip in her brain. and she is on the run in a race she can’t win. Byron’s concerned, not for her as his partner, she’s the face of his business. They were the first to use his new MadeLove chip, which unites couples irrevocably in thought, word and deed. Yikes. Her escape takes her to a strip club, her estranged father (Ray Romano) and his blow-up doll wife (Dianne)’s shack but Byron associates are on her tail. Milioti is terrific in her part but the story is repetitive, ham-handed and strained.
A nearly identical plot but far more satisfying set up in the horror thriller Held from Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff. Written by and starring Jill Awbrey, it’s a dark take on a relationship in crisis. Emma and Henry (Bart Johnson) rent a tech-forward desert home for their ninth anniversary weekend. She takes a cab by herself and strikes up a conversation with the driver (Rez Kempton) who is concerned that she is alone in an isolated place. The property is a well-secured marvel but it doesn’t score Henry any romance points when he shows up. Emma rebuffs him repeatedly until they take some whiskey and pass out. The drinks were doctored; when they revive their things have gone and in their place fifties suburban wear. A voice on a landline orders them to obey; she must cook and behave like a subservient wife, or face consequences. He is also under duress and must follow orders as game-changing truths emerge. He’s forced to read aloud a love letter written to her by a young man, who later shows up and is dispatched. The cab driver also appears – she’d left her notebook behind, and he is attacked by some unknown force as he leaves. Noises draw her to something malevolent in the house. Leaving it there! This is an interesting take on sexual and social politics, on change, manipulation and integrity. TVOD.
Brenda Blethyn of the insanely excellent Northern Brit noir detective series Vera makes a hard turn to sitcomedy in the BritBox series Kate &Koji. She’s a caf, not café, owner in a seaside village, set in her ways and intolerant of variation, especially in her customers. Her blunt assessments of well, everyone, make her someone to avoid; she’s in trouble with the town council, expensive trouble that could cost her the caf. When a Nigerian doctor (Jimmy Akingbola) seeking citizenship settles in to work at one of her tables and he’s all four things she can’t stand – scroungers, foreigners, doctors and posh people, he’s in big trouble. What Kate isn’t expecting that he’s not taking her guff, and heads butt. But somewhere along the way they bond – they’re two peas in a pod. The calming effect of her seen-it-all nephew as referee prevents or at least slows their battles and skirmishes with the rest of the village. Shot in picturesque Herne Bay in Kent, on the South East English coast, it’s nice to see the wind whipping in, the seagulls overhead and the slow pace of life off the beaten track. Unfortunately, an intrusive and fake-as-heck laugh track, instructing us where it’s funny isn’t funny. Since when do laugh tracks help a show, if it’s well written and played?
Directed by Academy Award-nominated filmmakers Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan joined forces with journalists James and Deborah Fallows to document recovered small communities in the US, communities abandoned by industry, railroads, highways and the effects of climate change but lived to tell their stories. Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America, debuting Tuesday looks at Inland Empire, California, Sioux Falls, Dakota, Columbus, Mississippi, Eastport, Maine, Charleston, West Virginia and Bend, Oregon, each unique community on the road back from failure. Innovation and imagination are the keys, the Fallows discovered, from forming a community circus to creating processing centres for immigrants, fishing on land instead of in the sea where lobsters have nearly dried up, arts and cultures hubs, attracting townsfolk who left for the big city to come back, and artisanal work. It’s most encouraging to see how people have fought to sustain themselves and thrive in these troubling times. Economically “convulsive” moments can be conquered and this doc confirms it. HBO and HBO Max